Traditional water systems hold the key to India’s water crisis

September 24, 2021 4:01 PM

If India is to effectively turn the current water crisis around, there is a need to learn from our ancestors, revive traditional water harvesting systems and enable and empower communities especially women to take back the management of water as a communal resource.

Rural people and their participation in water management, is integral.

By Pearl Tiwari,

Indians have had a rich history of managing water, with our ancestors sustainably harnessing water supplied by monsoonal rain and storing it to serve the needs of the community during the remaining dry months of the year. How did they do it? By using ‘traditional water harvesting systems’ – traditional technologies that have met the needs of local populations for centuries, highlighting their sustainability.

A traditional water harvesting system is a method for inducing, collecting, storing and conserving local surface run-off for future productive use. Every region in the country has its own traditional water harvesting systems that reflect the unique geography and culture of the area. Bamboo pipes and Apatani systems of eastern Himalayas; Ghul (water harvesting system) of western Himalayas; Kund (tank or small reservoir), Khadin (system for surface runoff water for agriculture), Talabs (ponds), Johad (rainwater storage tank), and Baoli (reservoir) of the Thar desert and Gujarat; ahar-pynes (traditional floodwater harvesting system) of Bihar – the list goes on.

These structures not only capture and store rainwater, but aid afforestation, reduce erosion of soil, increase the rainwater catchment area, and strengthen groundwater reservoirs. Depending on the region, they are located in close proximity to communities, allowing easy access to villagers. In Chhattisgarh for example, in the state of ponds, there are 4-5 ponds nearby each village. The water holding capacity of these structures ranged widely – between 10,000 m3 and 1,00,000 m3 – enough to meet the needs of the surrounding villages for up to a year.

However, over time, many of these valuable structures have fallen into disrepair. Siltation is identified as a major cause, where silt deposited via rainwater from the catchment area reduces the capacity of the structure to store water. Siltation over a period of 8-10 years dirties the water and renders the structure unusable, and many structures have not been de-silted for as long as 20-25 years. A lack of general repair and maintenance to fix leakages and over-extraction of groundwater for irrigation and other purposes, has further rendered many such structures useless.

Unfortunately, while new water harvesting structures are built with active participation from the government, corporates and other funding agencies, repair and maintenance of traditional and other existing structures, are often overlooked. In Chandrapur, Maharashtra for instance, despite having 44 check dams, irrigation capacity was still exceptionally low until 3 years ago, due to siltation and a lack of maintenance. Desilting and the revival of these ancient structures provides a key to unlocking the communities ability to have access to water, all year round.

Another key, lies with the role of communities managing this precious resource, and the traditional structures that hold it. Our ancestors believed that water was a communal resource to be managed by the community for the wellbeing of all. And it was the women who largely managed the resource. However during the colonisation of India, the British replaced the dispersed, decentralised management of water, with a more centralised, authority-driven one where the Public Works Department took control. Such a change meant that people gave up the responsibility of managing water, and instead saw it as a resource doled out by the powers that be.

But communities across India are reviving traditional structures, and taking responsibility for managing local water resources and structures, both sustainably and equitably. The formation of people’s institutions such as ‘Water User Associations’ plays a pivotal role in empowering local people to play an active role in overseeing water, and the structures that collect it, as a valuable community asset. Rural people and their participation in water management, is integral.

If India is to effectively turn the current water crisis around, there is a need to learn from our ancestors, revive traditional water harvesting systems and enable and empower communities especially women to take back the management of water as a communal resource.

(The author is Director and CEO, Ambuja Cement Foundation. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of the Financial Express Online.)

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